Ben Affleck really didn’t want people to know that one of his distant ancestors owned slaves—going so far as to lobby celebrity genealogy TV show Finding Your Roots to suppress the segment in which that ancestor is discussed. But we got our hands on a copy of the script—and now you can read the mild interview that terrified the actor.
In his episode of Finding Your Roots, shared with actor Khandi Alexander and former NAACP president Ben Jealous, Affleck learns a great deal about his family, including his mother and a great-great-great grandfather, Almon Bruce French, a spiritualist and occultist.
But there was one family member that Affleck bafflingly wanted to keep hidden: great-great-great grandfather Benjamin Cole, a Savannah slave-owner in the mid-19th century. Sometime after the show was filmed, Affleck contacted host Henry Louis Gates to request that the short, gentle interview about Cole be cut from the show.
In the episode, which aired on TV in October, Affleck and Gates discuss the spiritualist forebear before the show cuts directly to a new segment with Alexander. But a picture-locked copy of the script from June obtained by Gawker shows that the segment about his slave-owning predecessor would have appeared between. This is what Ben Affleck wanted no one to see:
AT THE SAME TIME THAT ALMON WAS TRYING TO OFFER THE BEREAVED SOLACE... ANOTHER OF BEN’S ANCESTORS WAS LIVING 800 MILES DUE SOUTH. WE LEARNED THAT HIS LIFE HAD ALSO BEEN FUNDAMENTALLY AFFECTED BY THE CIVIL WAR—BUT FOR VERY DIFFERENT REASONS.
THIS MAN WAS BEN’S THIRD GREAT GRANDFATHER, BENJAMIN COLE, AND HE WAS LIVING IN SAVANNAH, GEORGIA AT THE TIME.
COLE WAS ONE OF SAVANNAH’S MOST PROMINENT CITIZENS—A WEATLHY LAND OWNER AND THE SHERIFF OF THE ENTIRE COUNTY.
AFFLECK: That’s amazing. I got a…we have a house in Savannah.
GATES: Did it ever occur to you that you had deep roots there?
AFFLECK: No, it didn’t. It didn’t at all. I had no idea I had any southern roots at all, so this is remarkable.
COLE OWNED A LARGE FARM IN GEORGIA AT A TIME WHEN SLAVE LABOR HAD MADE THE STATE THE CENTER OF THE SOUTH’S COTTON KINGDOM.
WE WANTED TO SEE IF WE COULD LEARN HOW BEN’S ANCESTOR FELT ABOUT THIS PECULIAR INSTITUTION.
AND FOR THAT, WE STARTED WITH THE 1850 CENSUS.
GATES: This is the slave schedule of the 1850 Census. In 1850, they would list the owner of slaves in a separate Census.
AFFLECK: There’s Benjamin Cole, owned 25 slaves.
GATES: Your third great-grandfather owned 25 slaves. He was a slave owner.
THESE HOLDINGS PUT BENJAMIN COLE AMONG THE SOUTHERN ELITE.
ONLY ABOUT 10% OF ALL SLAVE HOLDERS OWNED 20 SLAVES OR MORE.
AFFLECK: God. It gives me kind of a sagging feeling to see, uh, a biological relationship to that. But, you know, there it is, part of our history.
GATES: But consider the irony, uh, in your family line. Your mom went back fighting for the rights of black people in Mississippi, 100 years later. That’s amazing.
AFFLECK: That’s pretty cool.
GATES: That’s pretty cool.
AFFLECK: Yeah, it is. One of the things that’s interesting about it is like we tend to separate ourselves from these things by going like, you know, oh, well, it’s just dry history, and it’s all over now, and this shows us that there’s still a living aspect to history, like a personal connection.
By the same token, I think it’s important to recognize that, um, in looking at these histories, how much work has been done by people in this country, of all kinds, to make it a better place.
GATES: People like your mother.
AFFLECK: Indeed, people like my mother and many others who have made a much better America than the one that they were handed.
The segment, in which Gates is careful to end on Affleck’s mother—a civil-rights worker—comes across as mild and non-confrontational, and Affleck comports himself well.
So why was it cut?
Last week, after leaked emails surfaced in which Gates describes Affleck’s desire to expurgate the segment, the Harvard professor denied removing the material at Affleck’s request—an apparent violation of PBS editorial standards—saying he had used his editorial judgment and found the material lacking.
“Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects and, with my producers, decide what will make for the most compelling program,” he said in a statement.
But if Gates was making an independent editorial decision based on quality alone, it came extremely late in the process. The June version of the script excerpted here is picture-locked, meaning that it came at the end of the editing process, and no major cuts or additions would be made.
Picture-lock must have been revoked sometime over the summer in order to make at least two major cuts, including to the opening segment. Here’s the voice-over introduction, as it appears in the June script:
IN THIS EPISODE, WE PIECE TOGETHER THE LOST FAMILY HISTORIES OF ACTOR BEN AFFLECK, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST BEN JEALOUS, AND ACTOR KHANDI ALEXANDER.
THEIR ROOTS HIGHLIGHT A UNIQUELY AMERICAN PARADOX: EACH DESCENDS FROM A PATRIOT WHO FOUGHT FOR OUR NATION’S INDEPENDENCE—BUT EACH ALSO DESCENDS FROM AN ANCESTOR WHO OWNED SLAVES.
And here’s how it appears in the final script, submitted in August:
GATES VO: IN THIS EPISODE, WE PIECE TOGETHER THE LOST FAMILY HISTORIES OF ACTOR BEN AFFLECK, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST BEN JEALOUS, AND ACTOR KHANDI ALEXANDER.
THEIR ROOTS LEAD TO ANCESTORS WHOSE LIVES WERE SHAPED BY THE TWO DEFINING WARS IN OUR NATIONS HISTORY. THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE CIVIL WAR.
Three Americans, two of whom are black, each of whom “descends from a patriot” but also “an ancestor who owned slaves” sounds like much more compelling television to me (relatively speaking, of course).
Not so to Skip Gates: “In the case of Mr. Affleck — we focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of his ancestry — including a Revolutionary War ancestor, a 3rd great–grandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and his mother who marched for Civil Rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964,” Gates told PBS’s ombudsman.
But “interesting” wasn’t the only thing on Gates’ mind. In a widely publicized July 22, 2014 email chain leaked during the Sony Hack and now available on Wikileaks, Gates asks Sony Entertainment CEO Lynton for his advice on a guest who “has asked us to edit something about one of his ancestors—the fact that he owned slaves,” openly admitting that editing the piece would be a “violation of PBS rules.”
“And he wasn’t even a bad guy. We don’t demonize him at all,” Gates grumbles about Affleck’s ancestor. (Bolding throughout ours.)
>>>>>>> On Jul 22, 2014, at 9:01 AM, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote: >>>>>>> >>>>>>> As long as you stay on the board, you are free to say this is crazy! I hardly know Harvey; you are my friend. I really would be devastated if you left. By the way, I need your advice: I’m on a flight to L.A. for the TCA Press Tour. We launch season two of Finding Your Roots tomorrow at noon, and four celebrities, including Nas, are showing up. Here’s my dilemma: confidentially, for the first time, one of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors—the fact that he owned slaves. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?
>>>>>> On Jul 22, 2014, at 12:09 PM, “Lynton, Michael” <Michael_Lynton@spe.sony.com> wrote: >>>>>> >>>>>> Of course I will stay on the board if you want me to. On the doc the big question is who knows that the material is in the doc and is being taken out. I would take it out if no one knows, but if it gets out that you are editing the material based on this kind of sensitivity then it gets tricky. Again, all things being equal I would definitely take it out.
>>>>> On Jul 22, 2014, at 9:11 AM, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote:
>>>>> Good; relieved. As for the doc: all my producers would know; his PR agency the same as mine, and everyone there has been involved trying to resolve this; my agent at CAA knows. And PBS would know. To do this would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman.
>>>>> Sent from my iPad
>>>> On Jul 22, 2014, at 11:28 AM, “Lynton, Michael” <Michael_Lynton@spe.sony.com> wrote: >>>> >>>> then it is tricky because it may get out that you made the change and it comes down to editorial integrity. We can talk when you land.
>>> On Jul 22, 2014, at 9:30 AM, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote:
>>> Will call. It would embarrass him and compromise our integrity. I think he is getting very bad advice. I’ve offered to fly to Detroit, where he is filming, to talk it through.
>>> Sent from my iPad
>> On Jul 22, 2014, at 12:28 PM, “Lynton, Michael” <Michael_Lynton@spe.sony.com> wrote: >> >> yeah,, the past is the past…..
On Jul 22, 2014, at 10:30 AM, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote:
> And he wasn’t even a bad guy. We don’t demonize him at all. Now Anderson Cooper’s ancestor was a real s.o.b.; one of his slaves actually murdered him. Of course, the slave was promptly hanged. And Anderson didn’t miss a beat about that. Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.
> Sent from my iPad
“Yes, bad idea,” Lynton replies.
[image via AP]